Rugged Canyon Sin Nombre

Jeep on the trail

Jeep on the trail.

A beautiful place with no name in Anza-Borrego Desert

One thing about a year with heavy rains in San Diego… it means the desert to the east comes alive.

DirtWith advice from desert expert Diana Lindsay and a Jeep Liberty courtesy of Chrysler, I headed east to explore a small part of the vast Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in late February, just when the flowers and greenery had reached their peak.

On two other drives, I’d explored areas to the north… Fonts Point and Split Mountain, so I asked Lindsay to give me a route within striking distance of Interstate 8, just a bit more than an hour from home in central San Diego.

Her suggestion: Canyon Sin Nombre, a twisting drive through nine million years of evolution and the Elsinore Fault, then back up Vallecito Creek, rejoining county highway S-2 near the settlement of Canebrake. It’s just 12 miles through the wilderness, but driving on sand and stopping to take in the view took me a couple of hours.

The desert is normally pastel colors at its brightest, with light browns and pinks complimenting the gray sand. But with this year’s rains, green grasses, bright reds and violets from flowers have created an entirely different view. Even the normally dry sands are darker, as water was still flowing through much of the canyon during my visit.

It’s not exactly Ireland, but the contrast is striking to even veteran desert rates.

According to Lindsay in her book, Anza-Borrego A to Z, Canyon Sin Nombre was named in the 1950s. At that time, it had no name, so the more-romantic Spanish translation was used and Canyon Sin Nombre was born.

Today, it’s a marked trail from S-2, just north of the Carrizo Badlands overlook area.

I first stopped at the overlook,which on a late February Saturday had nearly a dozen cars parked along its snaking access road. The overlook offers a vista of nine million years of geologic history. Cliffs, uplifted and folded over the eons, exposed by erosion and cracking, show layers of sediment, volcanic deposits and other strata.

“It’s the only place on earth where you can see this,” said Lindsay. The view looks east toward the Carrizo Badlands and Split Mountain, which I drove in 2004.

In the canyon

Rugged Canyon Sin Nombre.

From the overlook, there are a couple of short hiking trails. The flowers, grasses and other flora are also there.

One thing about desert flowers… we’re not talking about a carpet of blooms, like the wild mustard that’s now covering many back-country hillsides.

Desert flowers are much more elusive. They’re hiding here and there, so there’s not only the excitement of just seeing the beauty, but the challenge of the hunt.

Just after crossing the county line from Imperial to San Diego and entering the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I encountered a photo tour-group. While most of them crowded around a small cactus with a dozen or so pink blossoms, others carefully combed the area, looking for other blooms.
Their search paid off, finding a tiny desert lily a few yards away.

Easier to spot are the Ocotillo, which are tall, spindly plants found throughout the park. Their violet blooms pop from the spindles and are fairly easy to find. During my visit, there were some in bloom at the Carrizo Overlook.

For more information on flowers, the park‘s wildflower hotline, (760) 767-4684 has recorded information. If you’re at the visitors center, you can also purchase a postcard notice. It will be mailed to you next year when the blooming begins.

Back in Canyon Sin Nombre, it’s a quick trip down the hill from the Carrizo Badlands Overlook to the canyon. The road is sandy and the base of the canyon runs through a creek bed, so four-wheel-drive is recommended. There are also numerous ruts and rocks, so you’ll need the high clearance of an SUV.
I took it slow, being pretty much of a novice off-roader. The Liberty’s part-time four-wheel drive was adequate for traction; I never felt the need to shift into 4WD low. It also helped that I was in part-time mode when I got back on S-2 and accelerated to highway speed before remembering to shift back to 2WD.

The canyon reminded me a bit of the trip through Split Mountain and Fish Creek, although on a smaller scale. There are areas of sandstone, with the lines of time folded and tilted by the eons.

Parts also have colorful and sharp rock cliffs, heading perhaps 50 feet above the trail. Even after a wet winter, thicker vegetation tends to be on the areas shaded in the afternoon.

There were a couple of spots where tire ruts disappeared up narrow gorges. Being a novice, I stuck to the main trail, something advised by park officials.

“You can get yourself into some pretty serious trouble,” said Sharon Dall, a staff member at the state of California Department of Parks and Recreation ranger’s office in Borrego Springs. She advises travelers to respect the surroundings and stay on the marked trails, avoiding vegetation.

“Take water, food and sunscreen along,” she said, “and a cell phone” for emergencies.

A park pass is not needed to explore Canyon Sin Nombre, she said. They’re only required for overnight stays or hiking in areas such as Palm Canyon, Horse Camp and Tamarask Grove. Kiosks there sell the passes. For information, call the ranger’s office at (760) 767-5311.

Canyon Sin Nombre runs into Vallecito Creek, which has signs marking several directions. Trips can be made east in Carrizo Creek as far as the Carrizo Impact Area, a munitions-testing ground that’s closed to the public. South Carrizo Creek heads southwest back toward S-2.

I opted for the wide sands of Vallecito Creek, which twists northwest to S-2 and the hamlet of Canebrake. From here, drivers can head up Arroyo Seco del Diablo (with a drop-off to Fish Creek) and mud caves along Arroyo Tapiado. Palm Spring and another badlands vista are also to the north.

Still on Vallecito Creek, there’s also an area with several motor homes parked and a “Hollywood and Vine” street sign. Lindsay has a long entry in her book about this spot; lets just say it was named for World War II soldiers.

With the sun starting to fall behind the Laguna Mountains, I went directly back to S-2. From there, it’s a quick jaunt north to two county parks: the Agua Caliente County Park, with its hot springs; and the Vallecito Stage Station County Park. Both offer camping if you want to stay overnight. Further north is the town of Borrego Springs.

I chose to head home south on S-2 through the twisting Sweeney Pass, named for U.S. Army Captain Thomas W. Sweeney, according to Lindsay, who also notes that the correct spelling of his name is “Sweeny.” It was named in the 1930s, 20 years before county engineers constructed the snaking highway through the rugged hills. From there, I drove back to Interstate 8 and San Diego.

The flower season began in February and might last until the heat really begins in late April… but then you never know. Before your visit, check out the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association‘s web site at for information on where to look for flowers. Or, call the visitors center at (760) 767-5311.

At the south entrance of the park, adjacent to the big Anza-Borrego sign (and a sometime Border Patrol checkpoint), a monument with a quote has been erected by a local artist:

“This is the Desert. There’s Nothing Out Here. Nothing.” — N Karavasiles

This year, with all the vegetation to compliment the fantastic scenery, there’s a lot out there. End

Route and Info


  • A loop of about 45 miles from Interstate 8 at Ocotillo. Ocotillo is 83 miles east of central San Diego, about an hour and a half.


  • Moderate, with off-road segment; four-wheel-drive and high-ground-clearance vehicle recommended. Easy drive if you stay on the paved highway and adjacent access points.


  • Interstate 8 east to Ocotillo Exit.
  • North on Imperial Highway. Changes name to Sweeney Pass Road (county S-2) at San Diego County line.
  • Watch for sign for Carrizo Badlands Overlook. Entry to Canyon Sin Nombre trail is just north.
  • Take Canyon Sin Nombre trail east into canyon.
  • Watch for end of trail and sign marking Vallecito Creek. Turn left (east) and follow Vallecito Creek.
  • At county S-2, turn left (south). Return to Interstate 8 and San Diego. End

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